A Wellington problem that won't go away
As far back at the 1970s there were warnings about the stability of land in the Wellington suburb where up to 50,000 cubic metres of soil collapsed last weekend - forcing residents to flee. Michelle Duff reports.
William Chezick dug the earth from his own backyard with his bare hands. It was a labour of love, blood, sweat and tears, building the investment property at the back of his own home.
Mr Chezick, a qualified builder, had all the checks done: he obtained a geotechnical report, a physical hazards report, a resource consent.
Because there was no way he could access the back of the property with machinery, due to the nature of the slope, he carved out a platform for the foundations himself.
His investment dream lasted a mere 15 months, till last weekend.
The house that Mr Chezick built is now teetering at the edge of a sheer cliff face, and will almost definitely have to be demolished.
His own home at the front of the property is similarly threatened, and Mr Chezick and his partner, Sarah Jackson, are homeless. They have the clothes on their backs, and a few items they were allowed to retrieve from their precarious homes.
It was 4.30am last Saturday when Mr Chezick and his neighbours experienced the rudest of awakenings. Up to 50,000 cubic metres of soil was careening down the slope at the back of their houses, tearing down trees in its wake as it sloughed a path through an old gully.
"I thought it might have been Satan himself," Mr Chezick says. "It was very, very loud, trees crashing down and mud and water rushing."
About 90 people were initially evacuated from their homes, including residents from the Kilmarnock Heights Rest Home.
Yesterday, 35 residents were still waiting to be allowed back into eight homes considered the worst-affected by the slip.
Wellington City Council paid for 15 people to stay in rental accommodation until Tuesday. The residents of five houses are waiting to be told when they can return home.
But three - including Mr Chezick and his family, his tenants Jono Maulder and Rhia Williams, and Neil Bartlett and his family next door - are unlikely to ever return.
Investigators from the council, GNS Science, Earthquake Commission and other insurers are trying to determine the cause of the slip, but the council says the cause may never be known.
The landslide will cost ratepayers at least $100,000, with the Earthquake Commission likely to step in and cover some homeowners' losses.
But others could be left out of pocket, with all the land carved away from backyards unlikely to be eligible for cover.
The slide has thrown the spotlight on some of Wellington's cut-and-fill subdivisions, where housing has been built on infill land.
Many of Wellington's suburbs, including Berhampore and Kingston, were built during the 1960s and 70s using this method.
As far back as 1971, a visiting California geologist warned against tragic slope failure in these new housing areas, containing zones of weakness. "He feels that it is only a matter of time before someone is injured or killed," The Evening Post reported in July 1971.
Just one month later, in August 1971, a slip in Priscilla Crescent - the same area of Kingston evacuated last week - forced six families from their homes.
One of the houses in nearby Ontario St was anchored to the land by a council bulldozer, as its foundations cracked beneath it.
More recently, geotechnical engineer Mike Fleming has referred to Wellington's steep slopes as a "time bomb," waiting to go off in the event of a storm or an earthquake.
So just how dangerous is it really - and is history set to repeat time and again?
Six months ago, crown research institute GNS Science launched a study into this very issue.
Called Quantifying the seismic response of slopes in Christchurch and Wellington, the $500,000 project aims to pinpoint Wellington's danger zones and inform future decision making by councils.
The last research in this area was done in 1994, also by GNS. But almost two decades later, it was time to re-evaluate and draw upon lessons learned in Christchurch, GNS project leader Chris Massey says.
The engineering geologist breaks Wellington's slopes down into three main types. There's infill land, upon which many subdivisions stand. There's naturally sloped land, and then there's coastal cliffs like those in Eastbourne and Island Bay.
Scientists would determine which type and height of slope were least stable, and most likely to crash down in an earthquake or flood.
"If anything, what's happened with the fall in [Kingston] is that it's highlighted this is an issue, and we need to think about it."
In Christchurch, slopes greater than 10 metres high had been the most likely to fail, with coastal cliffs taking the biggest hit.
Greater Wellington Regional Council senior hazards analyst Iain Dawe says the region's mountainous nature means developments had to expand into surrounding slopes.
Weathered rock, uncompacted fill, and slopes that were not reinforced could all be problems, he says. Many fills were done on gullies that were still natural watercourses, so were a conduit for running water and a problem zone for landslides.
"There was a need to start building, and often we didn't have the standards around in the 40s and earlier - we didn't properly understand how we should compact a hill slope."
Landslides were caused by extra pressure on a slope, whether that be through earthquakes or water. When a hill had a subdivision cut into it, that extra pressure could prove too much.
"With time our standards have improved, so we would expect these kinds of fills in the older parts of Wellington."
Many councils in the region also struggled with old, leaky sewerage and water supply networks, he says. "They can just be leaking away for years, adding water to a slope."
It was hoped a region-wide water conservation drive would stem this, with better building practices and tighter requirements mitigating risk on new developments.
Wellington City Council city networks manager Stavros Michael says there are 500-700 slips a year in Wellington, from small earth movements to larger landslides.
"It's a phenomenon that takes place every year - it's not specific to an area. If you look at Wellington, everywhere there's an element of risk. And there's an ongoing process of evolving a code of practice that would narrow this risk."
District plan changes in recent years have introduced more rigid rules for resource consents, with developers having to get geotechnical reports before cutting into any land.
The council's own assets, such as roading, are regularly resurfaced to protect their foundations from becoming waterlogged.
And strict stormwater controls are placed on homeowners, so that gutters are required to discharge into council pipes and not on to the land, increasing the risk of slips.
But Mr Michael does not believe there is a legacy of shoddy subdivision building to contend with. Of major landslides in recent years, only two - in Kelson and Kingston - had been due to fill failures.
And the council's manager of building compliance and consents, Mike Scott, says the techniques used in the 60s and 70s are basically the same as today.
"The fundamentals haven't changed."
Though it is early in the investigation, there are no concerns with the way the Kingston subdivision or others of this era had been built.
"Are we concerned with the way this was done? At this point, no. We have no reasons to think they are contributing to landslides."
Sewage and stormwater pipes use gravity to keep the liquid moving along, so would not cause problems unless they were blocked - which would quickly become noticeable, he says.
Back in Kingston, Mr Chezick was fully insured for both properties with AMI - but will not be eligible for cover for all of his land.
"It's a waiting game. I'm a builder who deals with people in pretty stressful situations, so I'm used to pretty stressful environments.
"We know how this can unfold, and we'll fight it when we have to."
He had reconciled himself to the fact that his rental property is a "goner," and says it is unlikely he and his wife will return to their house even if they could - but that selling it will obviously be an issue.
Neil Bartlett, who lives next door in Priscilla Crescent, has lost everything. He spoke this week of letting his insurance lapse after struggling to keep the household going in the wake of his wife's early onset dementia.
Daughter Miriam Houliston, who lives in Perth, has organised a disaster relief fund for the family, which has currently raised $3000.
Across the road in Breton Grove, Marc Nicholas can see the exposed foundations of the houses from his back deck.
He's been allowed back to his home to collect personal items, but hasn't heard from the council about when he can return to his house.
While the council says reports that the slip was caused by a broken water main are unfounded, Mr Nicholas disagrees.
None of the investigators have asked him what he had seen on the night of the slip, where he and his family observed "water coming down the bank like you wouldn't believe," he says.
"It was like a flooding river, it was absolutely raging, so where has all that water come from?"
The slip has sliced away part of his backyard, near the boundary fence. It's not too badly damaged, but he holds concerns for the future. Not only will his property lose value, but the issue of who will pay for securing it is still up in the air.
He's expecting a battle in the coming months.
"On our LIM report there's going to be a huge flag flying. $100,000 from EQC will go nowhere near fixing it.
"Why should we go backwards for something we didn't cause? It's ugly, it's going to get very ugly I think. I hope I'm proven wrong."
It's been seven years since mud and rocks smashed through the Lower Hutt suburb of Kelson, but a stoush over the slip still remains.
In August 2006, a massive landslide forced the evacuation of four homes in Vista Grove, as a 50-metre-wide hole opened up.
Ann and Nigel Nation's home was demolished by Hutt City Council, after it was deemed to have been undermined by the slip.
"There was a huge, huge rush, it was like Huka Falls that went on for two or three hours," Mr Nation says.
"It was just a torrent, and it made a hell of a noise."
In the aftermath of the destruction, a temporary sewer line was lashed to neighbour Graham Cassells' home, suspended by wire ropes across a steep valley.
It's still there today, and is the subject of a bitter legal battle between Mr Cassells and Hutt City Council.
Residents say the council has done nothing to improve the temporary fix, despite warnings that more land movement will break the line.
The council says it wants to do work, but is involved in a legal battle with Mr Cassells, who will not allow access to the site.
The council wanted to keep the suspended sewer line, but make it more permanent, including adding reinforced concrete piles and ground anchors. They also offered to repair the slip, if local homeowners contributed to the cost.
But Mr Cassells says this is unacceptable. He does not want to have the line, which services 800 homes, suspended above his house.
"It's secured by a cable attached to our house . . . take the bloody thing away, we don't want it there. Any logical place for the line would be down on the road, where you can get to it."
His view was supported by the High Court in April, which found Hutt City Council could not legally gain access to the Cassells' land unless the sewage pipes were placed either under or upon the surface.
A Hutt City Council spokesman says: "There's no action to be taken. The wastewater pipe is working, and there's no action required."
While Mr Cassells' fight continues, Ann and Nigel Nation have cleared out of the street altogether. Now in another home in Kelson, they say the memory of the slip is still fresh.
In hindsight, they don't think it was necessary for the council to tear down their home, just three days after the landslide ripped through from above. "They said it was dangerous, but we don't reckon it was. At the time we were too dazed to know, we were in shock.
"It was pushed down by the council three days later, and it was quite hard to push. I think it was a histrionic sort of response, really."
The pair were never allowed back into their home after being evacuated, with firemen entering for half an hour to retrieve the most valuable items. "We lost a hang of a lot."
A council report on the landslide found it was caused by sloppy workmanship more than 40 years ago, amateur drainage repairs and heavy rainfall.
But the Nations remain convinced it was a burst water main. "It was like a river from above, and we've had seven years to think about it. The reasoning is quite complex, obviously, but whatever way you look at it it's the council's responsibility."
They think an investigation should be called into housing subdivisions built on infill land, as theirs was, and who should be held responsible.
The Nations sought legal advice to get compensation after the event.
They say EQC were "wonderful," paying them out immediately. The council and their own insurers were more difficult. Their contents insurance was not comprehensive enough, and they say they were "firewalled," at every turn. In the end, the private insurance covered most of their costs, and Mr Cassells bought what was left of their land.
But there's still rotting furniture they haven't been able to afford to replace, and occasionally they'll look for something before remembering it was lost.
"My heart really does go out to those people in Kingston. The aftermath of this isn't pretty, and for us it was just one of those incredible years of terrible frustration."
A slip stole their house, but the story has ended well for Eastbourne's Craig and Pam O'Connell. The pair thought a freight train was about to burst through their bedroom wall when a landslide spewed into their Sunshine Bay, Eastbourne home in July 2006.
They had only lived in their new home for eight weeks when mud and dirt punched a hole in their bedroom wall, after three days of torrential rain.
Insurance and the council stepped in to cover costs, and the couple now own another Eastbourne house.
Mrs O'Connell said while they were devastated at the time, they decided not to blame anyone and instead work with what they had.
"I think it depends on how the councils and insurance companies work together on sorting the issues.
"We dealt with the Hutt City Council, and they proved to be very helpful. We had to keep talking to them and keep them interested, but they helped us out."
While the O'Connells had insurance, they had a big section that hadn't yet been built on and was not insurable.
They stood to lose up to $500,000 before the council agreed to step in and buy the land.
Above the O'Connells' land was a reserve, which had been quite heavily deforested by the council in previous months.
"Lots of people wanted to blame the council for the trees, we didn't take that view because we decided it would be easier to work with them rather than against them, and spend a lot of money."
While there had been slips on the land in the past, "as you do, you don't actually think of it before it happens to you," Mrs O'Connell says.
Simpson Grierson partner and environment law expert James Winchester says there's no easy solution when it comes to who is liable to pay for destruction caused by a landslide.
"It always depends on the particular situation. A critical thing to do is to get advice from an engineer or someone suitably qualified to find out what has caused the problem.
"The issue of liability follows on from the most likely cause."
If the landslide is found to be the result of shoddy building work, the issue could be the actions of a developer, or council's approval of that development.
"Every local authority is a convenient target, because developers come and go but councils don't and they will always have some role."
Often, court battles would be fought between the insurers of two parties.
But issues could take years to resolve, and it was often easier to reach an out-of-court settlement, Mr Winchester said.
"There are lots of complex causation issues, and it's never straightforward."
EQC engineers have been at the Kingston scene since 9am on Saturday.
If claims are accepted, they could cover land damage for the minimum lot size or eight metres from the house, whichever is of lesser value.
But with EQC's coffers already low, a series of landslide claims in Wellington is the last thing the national insurer needs.
Before the Christchurch earthquakes, the natural disaster fund had around $6 billion.
This fund is being drawn on as quake claims pour in, but the bill for Canterbury is thought to be about $12b.
An EQC spokesman says it has paid around $3.5b already from the fund, and is now drawing down reinsurance.
When all claims were settled, EQC would need to ask the Government for an extra $1 billion to stay afloat.
Prior to Canterbury, EQC's worst-case scenario was a $7 billion earthquake event in Wellington.
"Canterbury has been the scheme's first test, the reinsurers are paying and their confidence in EQC is high. Nationally, the scheme has protected NZ from a large economic hit."
While the insurer couldn't break out landslip data for Wellington, nationwide there had been 286 claims totalling $4.4 million for landslips, flood and storm events across the country.